Ask any reasonably well-read person outside Japan to name a literary work from that country and odds are they’ll first say “The Tale of Genji,” by Lady Murasaki Shikibu (not her “real” name, and a story unto itself) an account of one prince’s life at Court in the Heian Period (794-1185 AD). The second has to be “The Tale of the Heike.” The main difference between the two is that “Genji” is a work of fiction, while the Heike Monogatari at least attempts to be a chronicle of actual events, the Genpei Wars that marked the end of the Heian period, Japan’s Golden Age.
The strife between the two leading military families of the time, the Taira and the Minamoto easily becomes the stuff of legend without very much embellishment, and anything more than a quick overview is far beyond the scope of this review. In short, while in theory the Emperor was the absolute ruler of Japan, in practice most of the power resided in the court bureaucrats (the Fujiwara), and the military families that defended the Emperor and (when it suited them) carried out his commands (Minamoto, Taira, Hojou and many others). Toward the end of the Heian period, the power of the military families (clans) was in the ascendant, and the two most powerful, the Minamoto and the Taira, clashed to decide who would become the de-facto rulers of the country. After an epic struggle culminating in the Battle of Dan-No-Ura in 1185, the Taira (Heike) were utterly defeated, which lead directly to the Kamakura Period and the first bakufu, or military government of Japan. Until then the title of “Shogun” was a temporary title given at need to a military leader to give legitimacy to his actions. From that point on, the title became hereditary and was–again, in theory–held by a member of the Minamoto family. While the Emperor retained his religious and ceremonial role, the Shoguns were the real rulers of Japan from this point onward until the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century.
What we know today as “The Tale of the Heike” was probably first recorded in the late 13th century, barely one hundred years from the events and people it describes. Plus there are some primary sources that exist from the time as well as a strong oral component to the account, told by the Hoishi, blind singers and storytellers who repeated the tale and others like it as entertainment, a tradition which lasted for centuries, thus turning the chronicles into the stuff of legend which, to a great degree, had already begun even before the war ended. The Genpei Wars with its accounts of bold warriors, brave women and tragic love stories could rightly be considered on a par with the Arthurian legends in the Matter of Britain, except, again, a great deal of it actually happened.
“The Tale of the Heike” is worth reading for its own sake, but as a writer interested in the period I can’t deny that at least part of my motivation for reading it was research. I’m in no position to quibble with the accuracy of McCullough’s translation, except to say that it is very readable and does not get in the way of the story as story. I was a little put off by the references to samurai, a term that barely existed at the time of the Heike Monogatari, but that would be the way most warriors would be referred to by the time the story was written down, so even that is hardly worth a mention. As insight into the minds of the people living at the time it is invaluable. While some attitudes are universal, others are heavily influenced by time and culture, and those differences were clearly shown in example after example. In short, I enjoyed reading this simply as a great adventure story, but I’d also recommended it to anyone with a passing interest in events that determined the course of Japanese history for the next eight hundred years.